Living without visual memories: “I can’t relive any experience I see”

Visualizing a memory is an everyday event for many people. A hint of cinnamon and ginger can transport you back to your childhood kitchen and relive eating freshly baked cookies, while hearing a particular tune may conjure up images of dancing with a special someone.

Mary Wathen has never had this experience. When the 43-year-old lawyer from Newent, England, remembers baking with her mother, no images come to mind. She can’t imagine how a child opens presents, what her husband looks like when he proposes, or even the birth of her children.

“When people say they can view images, it really sounds pretty strange to me,” Wathen said. “I can’t relive any experience I see. I only see it once at the moment. I am guided more by feelings and thoughts than by images.

“At the moment I don’t have a picture of my boys being born, but I can tell you all about it,” she added. “I can remember the feelings and describe the room and each birth in detail, but there is no way I will see it again.”

A year ago, Wathen discovered that she and her mother use a rare form of processing called aphantasia — their brains don’t form mental images that they can remember or imagine. (Phantasia is the Greek word for imagination.) “Until recently, I had no idea that other people actually saw images. I just assumed everyone was like me,” she said.

Much like left-handedness, experts say aphantasia is not a disability or disease, but simply a fascinating variation on the human experience.

“I understand concepts, I understand things, I have memories, but they are not supported by images,” Wathen said. “I’ve read that aphantasia is best described as: ‘You have the same computer hardware as everyone else, but the monitor isn’t turned on.’ That really touches me.”

Dutch-born artist Geraldine van Heemstra is at the other end of this unique type of processing. She suffers from hyper-imagination and can recall memories vividly, often as if they were reoccurring in that moment.

For van Heemstra, letters and numbers have colors, and people often have a colorful aura surrounding their bodies – so remembering the birth of her daughter is an experience full of warm hues and bright lights.

“I remember a blue screen and then our daughter’s head popping up with a little sunrise over her head, probably because she was screaming her heart out,” van Heemstra recalled with a smile. “It’s just a very beautiful and vivid memory with very warm colors.”

While such explicit images can be a boon for an artist, they also have significant drawbacks. “Too much imagination can also be a problem sometimes because you can think too much and become very insecure,” said van Heemstra, who divides her time between London and Edinburgh, Scotland.

For example, if she is nervous about going somewhere, she may think about it too much and experience déjà vu. “I think it’s happening because I kind of imagined it so vividly,” she said.

At other times, van Heemstra can’t turn off her brain. “Last night my son convinced me to watch a scary TV series about a woman who smuggled cocaine into Miami and shot a child in the head,” she said. “Then when I tried to sleep all night, it was like cameras in my head were going through all these very, very colorful and scary images.”

Aphantasia is not a disease or disability

About four percent of the world’s population may suffer from aphantasia, said neurologist Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in England and an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Zeman coined the term in 2015 after meeting a man who once had a vivid memory but lost it after heart surgery.

“We did a brain imaging study and found that his brain responded normally when he looked at things, but when he tried to imagine them, there was no activation of the visual regions of the brain,” Zeman said.

Since then, research has exploded, said Zeman, the author of one Review of science about aphantasia, published Wednesday in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. One of the advances is a method for objectively measuring the inability to visualize.

“When you have images and imagine looking at the sun, your pupils actually constrict a little bit,” Zeman said. “If you just imagine that you are looking into a dark room, your pupils will dilate a little. However, this effect is not observed in people with aphantasia.

Van Heemstra has developed a tool that moves with the wind, allowing her to capture images created by the movement of air. (Geraldine van Heemstra/CNN)

“When you have pictures and a very scary story is read to you, you start to sweat; However, this is not the case for people with aphantasia,” he continued. “But they sweat when you show them scary pictures. So the interpretation is that you need images to create a kind of gut reaction to an emotional story.”

Researchers are now recognizing that aphantasia may be linked to memory problems, autism or face blindness, in which people cannot recognize most faces, even those of loved ones. People with aphantasia are also more likely to work in science, math or information technology, Zeman said. And while aphantasia can be caused by an injury to the brain, some people, like Wathen and her mother, suffer from the disease from birth.

“We found out that it seems to run in families. So if you have aphantasia, this is the case First degree relatives “They are about 10 times more likely to get it too,” Zeman said.

Another finding: Many people with aphantasia actually dream visually. How can that be? That’s because the processes involved in creating images while awake and imagining them while dreaming are very different, Zeman said.

“People with aphantasia know what images are; You just can’t summon it during the day,” he said. “This lack of imagery typically affects all of the senses, not just the mind’s eye.”

This is certainly true for Wathen, who cannot reproduce any image, sound, smell, touch or taste. However, Wathen said she is often “driven by emotions and feels things very intensely” and can describe a smell, a taste or a sound by how it made her feel.

Wathen has had a successful career as a lawyer and considers herself excellent at communicating complex information: “I don’t really rely on images in any way, nor do I assume that another person will.”

However, she doesn’t like fantasy novels. “It’s just words on a page. “I don’t go traveling and visiting places that come to mind” – which also prevents her from role-playing with her children. She often observes how her husband, who she has discovered suffers from hyper-imagination, does this with ease.

“I watch with a little envy when I see them engrossed in role-playing games like being on a tractor or racing a car,” she said. “I’m much better at helping with homework or playing a real game.”

But the most disturbing aspect of aphantasia, for Wathen, is “the fact that I can’t see my children when I’m not with them.” I can’t conjure up an image of them. I can tell you in great detail what they look like, what their behaviors are, and even what clothes they wore this morning, but I don’t have a picture of them.

“It worries me that when I lose loved ones, like my mother, I can’t just close my eyes and pull out a picture of her.”

See too vividly

Zeman estimates that up to 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from hyperphantasia, which is at the opposite end of the brain’s processing spectrum than aphantasia. People who experience particularly vivid images are often involved in art and may experience heightened emotions, Zeman said.

Since childhood, Mary Wathen has been unable to see images in her head. (Mary Wathen/CNN)

“Images have been described as an emotional amplifier, so I think it’s a fair bet that people with hyperphantasy tend to have more volatile emotional reactions than people with aphantasia, although this hasn’t been well studied yet,” he said.

Brain scans show that people with vivid images have “pretty strong connections between the front of the brain and the sensory centers in the back of the brain,” Zeman said. “On the other hand, if you have aphantasia, these connections are much weaker. So the difference between the two could be in the connectivity in the brain.”

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to being on both ends of the sensory spectrum, Zeman said.

One of the benefits of aphantasia, he said, is that it may be easier to live in the moment because of the lack of repeated visual distractions.

“We are concerned that hyperimagination may make people more vulnerable to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” he said. “People sometimes confuse what they imagined with what actually happened, or allow themselves to continually imagine terrible outcomes that did not occur.”

For example, a mother whose children got out of a car shortly before a collision with another was plagued by vivid images of what might have happened if the children had still been in the car with her, Zeman said.

People with hypervisual brains often have this Synesthesiasaid Zeman, in which the brain perceives more than one sense at the same time, such as: taste colors, Feeling sounds or assigning certain colors to numbers and letters.

Growing up with a different brain

While many people with hyperimagination are happy with their abilities, the condition can have an exclusionary effect. As a child, van Heemstra learned to hide her sensory abilities in response to the cruel teasing of her brothers and school friends.

“When I was little, I was very quiet about how my mind worked,” she said. “I couldn’t play with anything; Literally, I could build huge cities with rivers and bridges and plant trees with a few sticks, but my younger brother couldn’t imagine it. So he said, “I don’t see anything, you’re stupid,” and jumped at it.

“It was also quite difficult at school, for example in math, where I saw the numbers in color,” said van Heemstra. “Even though I knew how to calculate and knew the correct answer, I didn’t like the result because the colors of the numbers didn’t match, so I changed them.”

Van Heemstra and Wathen have never met or spoken to each other, but both women told CNN that they talk about their unique brains in the hopes that it will help others, especially young children who may feel alienated at school.

“It was so frustrating at school because I would explain something and then get laughed at,” van Heemstra said. “I felt very insecure, and I think so many children can suffer from that, whether they have aphantasia or hyperphantasia, because you are made to feel so different.”

Many teachers in elementary school focus on encouraging a child’s creativity, but if they are unaware of the differences in the way the brain processes sensory information, they could easily leave a student behind because of how it appears awakens them to stop engaging, “even though in reality it has nothing to do with their brain.” enables them,” Wathen said.

“It’s so important that children feel inspired and engaged in school,” she said. “The more aware we are of these things, the more understanding and empathetic we can be – all part of trying to live harmoniously.”

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